Tag Archives: France

Travel Challenge Day 10 – The Answer

Most of you will have spotted that yesterday’s Travel Challenge picture was Paris and of course you were right but it may not have been the Paris that you were thinking of because this is Paris at the Walt Disney World’s EPCOT theme park in Florida USA.

I visited World Showcase in May 1990.

This, it has to be said, is an odd place – at the same time both intriguing and disappointing.  In the beginning it was the vision of Walt Disney himself –  to build a new city of the future but after he died the Disney Corporation accountants gained control, declared it self indulgent, too expensive and not commercial enough and everything was downsized until it became nothing more than an add-on theme park to Magic Kingdom without any of the Magic.

World Showcase consists of eleven countries from around the World.  The French Pavilion had a boring film about how wonderful the place is and some external sets representing Paris with an elusive Eiffel Tower seen in the distance from every angle and authenticity provided by men in striped shirts and berets and playing the accordion.

For people who imagine that Paris is full of men in berets, black and white hooped shirts, a string of onions around their necks, playing the accordion and speaking like Peter Sellers in the ‘Pink Panther’ films then EPCOT  is wonderfully accurate but actually I think I have to say that it is probably one of the worst representations of all in World Showcase.

There were the obligatory French restaurants, a patisserie and an ice cream parlour and a stroll along the Seine lined with shops and hand carts.  My only recollection is that I was seriously underwhelmed.  I had only recently been to real Paris and that had been far more satisfying.

That’s because I believe that  the only way to see Paris is to do it properly as I did when I visited the French capital in 2002 and rather like EPCOT, where you can see a whole country in just a few minutes, I saw the major sites in a foot-slogging, energy-sapping half a day and invented what my son subsequently called ‘speed-sightseeing’!

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On This Day – Castres in South of France

Even though travel restrictions are easing I am not yet minded to risk it so I still have no new stories to post so I continue to go through my picture archives and see where I was on this day at any time in the last few travelling years.

On 18th October 2011 I was in the delightful town of Castres in the South of France…

Lining the river on the right bank were les Maisons sur l’Agout which is the old medieval riverside quarter where the old tanners’ and weavers’ half timbered houses with running balconies overhang the water and their colourful shutters and windows cast reflections on the gentle water of the river. It reminded me of Girona in Catalonia although this was much smaller in scale and rather more attractive.

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On This Day – Boulogne, France

Even though travel restrictions are easing I am not yet minded to risk it so I still have no new stories to post so I continue to go through my picture archives and see where I was on this day at any time in the last few travelling years.

On 11th August 2010 I was in France in the Northern port city of Boulogne.  I have been to Boulogne several times and I am happy to declare it one of my favourite cities in all of France.

Boulogne Old Town

I like Boulogne, I like Northern France, I especially like Northern France in August because all of the French people have gone south leaving the north for us Brits and the asylum seekers trying to get a boat to cross the English Channel.

The old town is built within the original Roman walls and has recently been well restored and it was in complete contrast to the concrete and glass of the sea front and the modern glitzy shopping streets.  Here is the beating heart of a medieval city with history gently oozing from every corner with a castle, a cathedral and narrow streets lined with charming properties, little shops, inviting cafés and bars.

Boulogne 02

From the car park we walked along the main street full of interesting shops and busy restaurants and under the walls of the huge cathedral which was rebuilt in the nineteenth century as a symbol of the revival of the French Catholic Church.  During the 1789 Revolution the old cathedral had been closed, Catholicism was replaced by order of Robespierre by ‘The Cult of the Supreme Being” and Christian worship forbidden.  The Church was declared the property of the State and then dismantled and sold for building projects, stone by stone.  In 1802 Napoleon reinstated the Catholic Church in France.

The medieval cathedral was the site of a shrine to ‘Our Lady of Boulogne’ a representation of a vision that appeared in Boulogne in or around the year 646 and which arrived in a boat without sails, oars, or sailors, on which stood a wooden statue of the Virgin holding the Child Jesus in her arms.  The French Revolutionaries didn’t have a lot of regard for this sort thing and so at the same time as they destroyed the cathedral they burned the priceless wooden statue as well.

Anyway, the church was rebuilt in the nineteenth century complete with a massive dome, one of the largest in Europe, and inside there is a modern replica of ‘Our Lady of Boulogne’ which is one of four that were sculptured in 1943 and toured France until 1948 when it was known as ‘The Lady of the Great Return’ and is today symbolic of the reconciliation between nations.

This was nice I thought, such a shame that we in UK have foolishly chosen to turn our back on Europe…

Boulogne 01

From the cathedral we walked along the Rue de Lille and negotiated the pavement table barricades scattered almost randomly across the pedestrianised street and then to the Hotel de Ville with its immaculate gardens like a green  oasis in the centre of the cramped city where we stopped for a while and enjoyed the hot sunshine and the contrast of a cool beer under the shadow of the city’s twelfth century UNESCO World Heritage Site medieval Belfry.

Inside the town hall there was free entry to the Tower that included a guided tour and history of the building which was helpfully given in English as well as French.  There was a long climb with a couple of stops for informative narrative and there were good views from the top of the tower and we were lucky to be part of only a small group of visitors because we had time and space to enjoy the rooftop vista.

Boulogne 09

We left the old town by a gate next to the Castle Museum and I am forever amazed at the bits of trivia that I pick up on my travels because who would have guessed that inside is the most important exhibition of masks from Alaska in the whole world?  I couldn’t help wondering why the most important exhibition of masks from Alaska isn’t in Alaska?

After the break we walked half of the walls and then returned to the car to go to the fishing port to find some lunch and after we had some difficulty finding a parking spot we strolled casually down the hill into the town past the Nausicaa Aquarium, one of the largest aquarium museums in France.

We strolled along the busy docks which, it turns out, is the biggest fishing port in France and there is a large fishing fleet including deep-sea trawlers and factory ships, as well as smaller sea-going and inshore fishing boats.  A third of France’s fresh fish catch is landed here, and a huge quay-side fish processing factory makes 20% of the nation’s tinned fish, and half of the frozen fish, fish fingers and other fish based ready meals.

Boulogne Fish Market Postcard

At a seafront restaurant we asked for menus but things went spectacularly wrong when an unexpected strong gust of wind blew my glass of beer over straight over.  It was getting quite windy now so we tried two or three different tables and then abandoned the seafront lunch idea and returned instead to the shelter of the old town where perhaps we should have stayed in the first place.

Here we selected a restaurant on Rue de Lille and ordered what we thought was going to be a snack but turned out to be quite enormous meals which, although we didn’t know it at the time was going to spoil our evening meal.  Mum didn’t enjoy her Welsh Rarebit, Alan had an oversize omelette, Richard had a pizza that would have been sufficient for all four of us but I did get the pot of moules marinière that I had been promising myself.

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Postcard From Île de Ré, France

Ile de Re Postcard

“The French cannot get the hang of queueing.  They try and try but it is beyond them… you see orderly lines waiting at bus stops, but as soon as the bus arrives the line disintegrates into something like a fire drill at a lunatic asylum….” – Bill Bryson – ‘Neither here Nor there’

Today we planned to take a bus ride to Saint Martin-de-Ré on the Ile de Ré that was about an hour’s journey away, so, knowing that the French are the World’s worst queue jumpers we arrived at the bus station in good time to find the departure point and stand with sharpened elbows at the front of the line.  There was no line of course, just a disorderly crowd of people that was steadily getting larger and more excitable as we waited for the bus.

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A Postcard From Northern France

France Postcard

My favourite part of all of France.

Something like ten-million British travellers arrive in Calais each year and then without looking left or right, or stopping for even a moment head for the motorways and the long drive south and in doing so they miss the treat of visiting this Anglo-neglected part of France; the Côte d’Opale is a craggy, green, undulating and often dramatic coastline stretching for eighty miles between the port towns of Calais and the Baie de la Somme and the mouth of the river.

English tourists may avoid it but it has been long prized by the French and the Belgians, who enjoy the informal seafood restaurants in fishing villages dotted along the coast and the miles of intriguing coves and sandy beaches that run all the way down this coast that looks across at the south coast of England and leaks away inland to a glorious countryside.

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Looking Back, France 2017

A year ago I spent a week in Northern France with family and friends.  Click on an image to scroll through the pictures…

Northern France, Commonwealth War Graves

Commonwealth war Graves Boulogne

It was early, peaceful and eerily serene and apart from a gardener carefully tending the flowers and the occasional snipping of his secateurs around the graves we were the only people there and there was no sound and I was struck by the quiet solemness that seemed to lay heavily on this place. Each gravestone is the same regardless of rank and they line up in rows as though they were soldiers on a parade ground.

Most of these victims of war were obscenely young but what struck me the most was that many were buried here but simply marked in the words of Rudyard Kipling as ‘An unknown soldier of the Great War’.  I didn’t care to think about the horrific injuries that they must have endured that stripped away their identity.

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A Gate in France, Three Ways

Vic Sur Aisne Door

I liked the town of Vic-Sur-Aisne, I liked the Wednesday street market where I bought Toulouse sausage to make a cassoulet, I liked the friendly local people in the bar who made me feel welcome, I liked the boulangerie that sold tempting pastries, I liked sitting on the pavement outside the bar beneath the tower of a medieval castle where I daily reflected on the history of the region …

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Napoleon Bonaparte, Three Ways and Twenty Separate Parts

Napoleon 1

When I was a boy, about ten or so, I used to like to make Airfix model kits.

The little models were mainly heroes from English history but curiously there was a figure of Napoleon included in the range and it was always one of my favourites, probably because he was one of the easiest to put together and to paint.  It is an odd thing but I think that Airfix kit of Napoleon Bonaparte began my interest in French history and why I went on to study the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Empire at University.

Napoleon Airfix

Other figures in the range were the Kings Richard the Lionheart, Henry V, Henry VIII and Charles I and to balance things up there was the regicide Oliver Cromwell.

Napoleon was there but not Hitler or Stalin and alongside him representing France was Joan of Arc.

For some reason Julius Caesar who once invaded England was included but not William The Conqueror.

Airfix Figures

Who was your favourite Airfix figure?

France, The Annual Family Holiday and French McDonalds

France 2017

“The people of McDonald’s need guidance. They need to be told that Europe is not Disneyland…. It should look like a normal European bistro and nothing to tell you from the outside that this is a McDonald’s except for a discreet golden arches sticker on each window and a steady stream of people with enormous asses going in and out of the front door.” Bill Bryson – ‘Neither here Nor there’

Every year I make myself a promise and every year I break it.

Generally around about February/March my daughter gives me a call and tells me that her holiday plans are disrupted because someone has dropped out and she invites me along instead. This time I said that I would be strong and resist. These holidays require the sort of preparation and training exercises that are considered even too tough for the US Navy Seals or the British Army SAS.

When the inevitable phone call came I was ready and said no, I said no in a firm voice, I said absolutely no, I declined several times and then about an hour or so later I started making travel plans and ferry bookings because this year we were going to Picardy in Northern France.

Actually I booked some airline tickets to Paris with the intention of hiring a car to avoid the long journey but the costs started to mount alarmingly and eventually I had to abandon the flight idea and take a financial hit on the fares and accept that there was no real alternative but to drive which was something I wasn’t really looking forward to if I am honest.

P&O Dover to Calais

We set off early on Sunday morning and made surprisingly swift progress along the UK’s congested motorways, caught the scheduled ferry and then made the two hundred mile journey from Calais to the town of Soisssons where we were spending the first night in a cheap IBIS Hotel.

We were staying at an IBIS hotel because my daughter Sally had got the booking dates wrong. We were due to stay at a nearby holiday park but the reservation didn’t begin until the next day so we had no alternative right now but to find a temporary stop over.

We didn’t stop driving until we reached the ubiquitous edge of town shopping mall which are a disagreeable feature of most French urbanisations as everywhere it is almost certain that the approach to any historic town or city must now pass through an aluminium clad collection of temporary industrial units, supermarkets and fast food restaurants.

And this is another curious feature of France because every town we drove through had countdown signposts and specific directions to the nearest McDonalds restaurant as though the French need the constant reassurance of the nearest set of Golden Arches.

The poor French. There they were, with their traditional bistros serving cassoulet, soupe a l’oignon and confit de canard and now all the people really want is rectangular food-like objects that taste vaguely of chicken, and a side of dipping sauce.

Mcdonalds France

Well, actually it turns out to be not so curious at all because even though they maintain that they despise the concept of the fast food chain an awful lot of French people do eat there. Across France there are nearly twelve hundred restaurants (restaurants?) and in Paris alone there are almost seventy, with even more dotted around the outer suburbs. That’s much the same as London, but with only a third of the population.

McDonald’s, or “macdoh” as it is known is now so firmly a part of French culture that the menu includes McBaguette and Croque McDo and in 2009 McDonald’s reached a deal with the French museum, the Louvre, to open a McDonald’s restaurant and McCafé on its premises by their underground entrance.  That could almost be considered as sacrilege.

A consequence of the French love of fast food is a growing obesity problem in a country that has always prided itself on being slim and healthy with a belief that there is something in the French lifestyle that protects them against obesity, heart disease and diabetes. This is called the ‘French Paradox’ and is now being exposed as a myth because they are straying from the very dietary habits that made them the envy of the world – eating small portions, eating lots of vegetables, drinking in moderation, and only limited snacking.

Overall six and a half million French, that’s 15% of the population, are now classified as obese.

When in a foreign country I like to savour the local culture so after we had settled in and the children had finished dismantling the rooms I drove to the nearby McDonalds to get something to eat.

This was a tricky experience. The place was heaving and the only way to order food was by using the interactive display boards which is relatively straightforward in England but a bit difficult in France where there is no English language option and my assistant was a four year old grandson with faster fingers than me and who was impatient for nuggets and fries.

It took a while and I thankfully avoided a massive order of about 5000€ and then we waited.  And we waited.  McDonalds is supposed to be fast food but the preparation process was slightly slower than glacial and it took over thirty minutes to be served our order.

Back at the IBIS Hotel it took about thirty seconds to eat it and when the children were all safely in bed I poured a gin and tonic and drank it and then a second stronger gin and tonic and drank that and started to worry about the next ten days and what I had let myself in for.

Ferry over to Calais